Government let bin Laden slip, Gellman says

The United States government not only let Osama bin Laden slip through its fingers but later came dangerously close to accidentally killing one of its royal allies while pursuing the terrorist, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondent.

Addressing "The War on Terror Before September 11," Barton Gellman offered an inside view of the deliberations on terror conducted by the Clinton and Bush administrations. He spoke Tuesday, April 23, at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in Robertson Hall, Princeton University.

"There was an enormous amount going on under President Clinton that we did not know about at the time," explained Gellman, one of a team of eight Washington Post journalists who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism.

Later, said Gellman, a 1982 Princeton graduate, President Bush's new policy team delved into "a fairly ambitious policy review on terrorism that we also didn't know. But they had not yet decided much before 9-11."

Gellman explained that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) didn't begin devoting much attention to bin Laden until 1996. That's when its Counter Terrorism Center initiated a new unit of analysts exclusively focusing on the problem after "terrorism and al Quaeda, in particular, began a pretty rapid transformation, in the U.S. government's view, from a tactical nuisance to strategic threat."

That's also when the U.S. "had a tantalizing chance" to apprehend bin Laden, according to Gellman, who is serving this semester as a Ferris Professor of Journalism in the Council for the Humanities .

Anxious to have his nation removed from the U.S. list of states that sponsored terrorists, Sudan's president sent a confidante to initiate a secret channel in a meeting with two CIA case officers in the Hyatt Arlington Hotel, outside of Washington, D.C., Gellman said. There they said that the Sudan "might hand over bin Laden if asked nicely enough."

"It's not at all clear that (the offer) would have been carried out," said Gellman. "But what is clear is that the Clinton administration did not put that offer fully to the test."

Clinton's foreign policy experts, he explained, "were not inclined to take the offer seriously" and were more in favor of isolating Sudan rather than reforming that African nation. As far as bin Laden's native country, he noted, Clinton had at least four more pressing concerns about Saudi Arabia than the terrorist leader -- oil price stability, access to airbases, the isolation of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"So when you got to Cabinet level and certainly head-of-government level contacts, bin Laden simply didn't come up. The bottom line is, bin Laden left Sudan ten weeks after the secret channel started and made a new home in Afghanistan."

The most important turning point under Clinton came in 1998, Gellman said, when the U.S. Embassy bombing transformed the U.S. policy literally overnight. "By the following day, Clinton had decided to kill Osama bin Laden," he said. "And for the last two-and-a-half years of his term in office, he devoted quite a bit of his time and resources to try and do that."

According to Gellman, one of Clinton's attempts almost proved disastrous in 2000 when the U.S. military "came within an hour or so of killing a friendly sheik." The CIA was informed by a human source that linked bin Laden to a desert encampment in southern Afghanistan. The sighting was confirmed by overhead surveillance. After consulting with advisors, the president gave the go-ahead to prepare for a launch of a tomahawk missile from the Northern Arabian Sea.

"Literally, the engines were on and the gyroscopes were targeted," said Gellman. Suddenly, government officials were advised that what they originally detected as bin Laden's camp was actually a "falconing expedition for a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates."

About a month after George W. Bush took office, a sophisticated, 100-pound, hellfire missile was successfully developed that could be carried on a 950-pound drone airplane. It could spot and shoot bin Laden within a space of about six seconds.

"Think of a hummingbird carrying a hand grenade," explained Gellman, who added that the new president made a decision in June -- three months before September 11 -- not to deploy the new weapon in Afghanistan. "They did not resume the covert hunt for bin Laden at that time."

Gellman, who is now a special projects reporter in the New York bureau of the Post, previously served as that newspaper's diplomatic correspondent, Jerusalem bureau chief, Pentagon correspondent and local courthouse reporter.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601